Grenade attacks by Syrian army defectors on the ruling Baath party headquarters in Damascus and a few days earlier on an air force intelligence centre mark a new phase in the Syrian uprising. They indicate the start of an armed fight back, after eight months of mainly unarmed anti-government demonstrations being met by severe brutality from the state’s forces.
Arms are increasingly being smuggled into the country along its long, porous borders, particularly those with Lebanon and Iraq. Although defectors from the army are still relatively small in number compared to the regime’s military forces, there is a steady stream of them, loosely organising as the Free Syria Army. Some of them have said that they are not being stopped – and are even aided – by regime-serving rank and file troops (Guardian 19.11.11).
Demonstration against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Homs
Most of the bloodshed across the country is being perpetrated by the government’s police and military forces against protesters who, inspired by the Arab Spring, desperately want an end to the repressive, authoritarian regime. Estimates of the death toll vary, from the 3,500 figure of the United Nations to much higher assessments. One report suggested that over 5,000 civilians have been killed in the city of Homs alone, the country’s third largest city.
Homs is now under constant military ‘occupation’, with 150 killings reported there so far this month. But despite the huge risks involved in protesting, the courageous anti-government demonstrations in its suburbs go on. Dangerously though for the opposition movement, the brutality and provocations of the state security forces have created elements of division in some areas of the country, particularly in Homs, between different sections of the complex religious, ethnic and national makeup of the population.
Media commentators internationally are now speculating on whether this means that a descent into a bloody sectarian-based conflict has begun. However, although such a devastating scenario is possible if the Syrian masses do not take steps towards building their own democratic, non-sectarian organisations, the central character of the situation at present is one of large demonstrations in many areas against the ruling regime, drawing in workers and the poor from the various minority sections of society as well as from the majority Sunni population.
A united working class led movement has the potential power to cut across division, by organising non-sectarian defence bodies at grassroots level and by adopting a programme that can achieve ‘regime change’ in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people rather than those of the Syrian capitalist class and foreign imperialism.
The regional and world powers fear the developing situation but also are lining up to benefit from it. The Arab League called for an end to the heavy repression in Syria and wanted to impose 500 ‘observers’. With this interference being rejected by the Syrian regime, the league voted for sanctions on Syria and suspended its membership of the league.
That these largely autocratic and feudal Arab heads of state are not acting out of concern for human rights is blatantly obvious considering their own record, not least the repression by the regime in Saudi Arabia and its military assistance in crushing protests in neighbouring Bahrain. Their criticism of president Assad in Syria stems partly from their desire to protect themselves from outrage in their own populations at the massacres in Syria and from the great sympathy for the mass uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that removed dictators like themselves. But also they have their own geo-strategic interests, and differences with what - to them- is an ‘awkward’ regime with links with Iran. And they fear the consequences in the region if Assad doesn’t make significant concessions or step down with an ‘orderly’ transfer of power – the tensions and conflicts that could result and spread throughout the Middle East.
King Abdullah in Jordan has said that if he was his longstanding friend Assad, he would step down. And he warned against the replacement of this fellow authoritarian leader by another leading Baath Party figurehead, realising that this is unlikely to bring about ‘stability’. The present renewed mass demonstrations in Egypt show that his warning is apt from the viewpoint of the ruling elites of the Middle East.
The European Union (EU) has imposed sanctions on individual Syrian leaders, an arms embargo and an oil import ban. Such measures, and those of the US, will inevitably have some effect on undermining Assad’s regime. In 2010 the EU was Syria’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 22.5% of its trade.
Tourism, which contributed about 12% of the country’s income before the Arab Spring, has also been badly hit. Overall, unemployment is rising and poverty worsening; wages are not being paid in some instances.
Balance of forces
How long can Assad hang on in these circumstances? The country’s elite, dominated by the Alawite minority but including the elites of other sections of society such as the majority Sunnis and minority Christians, is still supporting him at present, including the army and security chiefs.
They have a plentiful supply of arms from Russia - current contracts for sales of arms and military equipment from Russia to Syria are worth over £1.58 billion ($2.5 billion). Also, they managed to assemble hundreds of thousands of ‘supporters’ for Assad’s rule on a recent demonstration in Damascus, but many turning out would have felt forced to attend, to avoid retribution. The Times (15.11.11) reported that on 13 November, a 14-year old school student was shot dead when he led a mass refusal in his school to demonstrate in favour of the regime.
Furthermore, the main opposition political umbrella organisations are very divided within themselves on almost every issue, including on whether to encourage foreign intervention, whether to have dialogue with the regime, and on whether the uprising should be armed. The opposition exiles in the Syrian National Council (SNC) - based in Istanbul – are calling for international intervention to ‘protect civilians’. Reflecting its pro-capitalist leadership, although the SNC wants Assad to go, it has been reported as supporting ‘the preservation of state institutions, especially the military’. Syria’s Local Coordination Committees, the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and the Muslim Brotherhood are among the organisations that adhere to the SNC.
The National Coordination Committee (NCC), which also encompasses various opposition organisations, rightly rejects foreign intervention but it argues simply for demonstrations to apply pressure for an end to the military brutality and then for ‘dialogue’ with the regime as the way of achieving change, rather than for its complete removal.
Socialist programme needed
Overall, the opposition movement is dissipated and without a programme that can unite working class and middle class people and provide them with an organised strategy of mass struggle and general strikes – encompassing the two largest cities Damascus and Aleppo as well as all other areas - to bring down Assad’s rule. It also needs to pose a viable alternative, which to end poverty and division would need to be a socialist solution based on genuine workers’ democracy and public ownership of the country’s key resources.
The present stage of the movement is not surprising following decades of suppression of political parties and rank and file controlled trade unions. But democratic bodies could be built very rapidly, out of urgent necessity in coming weeks and months.
They would be right to reject any ‘help’ from the world and regional powers, including Nato member Turkey – another regime that has persecuted many of its own opposition political activists but that is pretending to champion the rights of oppositionists in Syria. The imperialist interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have shown how their true aim is prestige, influence, trade, and acquisition of businesses and natural resources. Only solidarity and help from democratic workers’ organisations internationally should be relied on by Syrian workers.
Regarding ‘non-violence’ and arms, the only way to reduce the level of bloodshed and move as fast as possible towards ending it completely is through supporting the right to set up armed, democratically organised defence bodies at grassroots level in every community and workplace. The tanks and missiles of the state cannot be resisted with bare hands without huge loss of life – so armed, non-sectarian defence is urgent.
Outside military intervention
The Western powers have so far rejected any military intervention even of a limited nature, such as a ‘no-fly zone’ along border areas. Although with hindsight they view their intervention in Libya as successful, they had come close to being embroiled in a protracted involvement, without definite gains. Military intervention in Syria would be far more risky as there are key differences with the situation faced in Libya. As well as Syria’s much more complex Balkan-type patchwork of ethnicities, religions and nationalities, it is in a pivotal position in the Middle East, so the regional repercussions are potentially much more serious.
Diplomatic editor of the Times, Roger Boyes, commented: “A brutal Middle East dictator is one thing; a collapsing power on the borders of Israel and Nato is quite another”.
But this caution doesn’t stop them from meddling in Syria in other ways, with none of it aimed at aiding the struggle for democracy of the Syrian people. Rather they are preparing for when Assad falls, by discussing with self-appointed ‘leaders’ of the opposition movement, hoping to use them to advance western interests as they did with others in Libya before the fall of Gaddafi.
"We have been having regular contacts with a variety of figures in the Syrian opposition for several months. We are now intensifying these" said a British foreign office spokeswoman, as foreign secretary William Hague arranged to meet representatives of the SNC and NCC in London on 21 November.
However, although they see opportunities for their interests when Assad is removed – including in countering the influence in the region of Hezbollah in Lebanon and more importantly, Iran, they greatly fear the upheaval that could result. This could include Iran pushing forward its interests in Iraq at the expense of those of the western imperialism.
The Syrian working class has to rely on its own potential strength – which is immense – to chart the way forward. The route ahead is likely to include many twists and turns. Despite his resolve to fight to the end, Assad may flee or be removed very suddenly, and then the need for the working class to determine the nature of a new government would be immediately posed. Workers’ experiences in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya bring home forcefully that there should be no trust placed in any former leaders of the removed regimes, the military generals, or any other pro-capitalist politicians. Instead it is necessary to promote a socialist solution, as the only way to bring about full employment, an end to poverty and bloodshed, and full democratic rights for all sections of society.
- United struggle against the regime by the working class and poor in Syria drawn from all nationalities, ethnicities and religions.
- Build democratically run committees in workplaces and communities for defence against repression and to develop the struggle
- No to any interference by the world or regional capitalist powers
- For independent trade unions and a new mass party of working people
- For a revolutionary constituent assembly.
- For a democratic, majority workers’ and poor people’s government, with socialist policies, guaranteeing full democratic rights for all minorities